Fr. Paul's Homily
I wonder what the troops were told when they were about to enter the Normandy Invasion during World War II. Were they told of the artillery and machine gun fire that would confront them on the beach? Did they understand the risk involved and did they realize that many of them would not make it through the day alive?
Sometimes when we are entering into a very difficult situation, we are given a reality check! This is what Jesus is doing in today’s Gospel and I’d like to explore this with you today. He is speaking difficult words about division and suffering and we need to hear him.
This is not my favorite gospel! We hear Jesus say, “Do you think I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” How do we reconcile this statement with the many statements of Jesus about peace? His most frequent greeting after the resurrection was, “Peace be with you.” When he walked on the water and the disciples were filled with fright, he said, “Do not be afraid…it is I.” It seems that Jesus wants to fill us with peace, and yet we hear in the Gospel that he comes for division, and not peace. How can we understand this?
Sometimes the gift of peace is not always welcomed. Jesus wanted to move people away from selfishness, anger, hatefulness. He strongly challenged people who had an attitude of superiority and looked down on others. Jesus’ most common call was toward forgiveness and love, even of our enemies. This is not an easy message, both to hear and accept. When we are hurt or offended, we first want to retaliate. Our human reaction is to cause pain to the person (or country) that caused pain to us.
But this is not the message of Jesus who repeatedly calls his follows to a higher road of mercy and forgiveness. I remember when 9/11 occurred…the attacks on the World Trade Center buildings in New York when close to 3,000 were killed. Terrorists had hijacked several airplanes and intentionally flew them into these two towers and also the Pentagon. Most of us will remember that day, knowing exactly where we were when we heard.
The following day after 9/11 my parish had a prayer service and the place was packed. While I do not remember specifically what I said, a parishioner recently reminded me that I had asked the people to pray for the terrorist who had done the crime! This person told me how much that affected her and how it caught her off guard! She was filled with sorrow, shock and anger, but she was not ready to pray for the perpetrators of the crime!
In those weeks that followed, if I had suggested such prayer in some gatherings, I would have been shouted down and perhaps declared to be un-American! Some people were suggesting that we go over and just carpet bomb the country…a reaction founded upon pain and retaliation. Would Jesus message have been popular during those weeks? I doubt it.
Jesus says, “Love your enemy, do good to those who persecute you.” Can we begin to see how the message of Jesus might cause division and strife? If we really speak the message of Jesus, then in some circles we will cause tension and perhaps division. And yes, there might be division within the family itself so that father is divided against son, and son against father. When we chose to live out of an attitude of anger, vengeance and superiority, we do not want to hear the words of Jesus, “Love your enemies.”
For the early Christians, the experience of division within families because of the message of Jesus was a lived experienced. Being faithful to Jesus meant that you were sometimes kicked out of the house and ostracized from the family. This occurred because of what happened to the Jewish-Christians around 80 AD. Before this time, Christians in Jerusalem lived their Christian faith as the fulfillment of their Jewish faith. They saw no conflict in being both a good Jew, going to the synagogue and obeying the Jewish Law, and being a good Christian by believing in Jesus as the Messiah and worshipping on Sunday. Around 80 AD, however, the Jewish leaders declared the Christians to be “Unclean” and forbid them from participating in the synagogue services. Good Jews believed that they had to turn their backs on their Christian family members. They were no longer welcome into their homes. Families were divided.
Can you image how hard that was to be ostracized from your family? Dying for your faith would be difficult, but being told that you can never see your parents again would be equally difficult. Would you be tempted to give up your Christian faith to avoid this division? We can see the pain involved in being faithful to Christ? Staying true to one’s faith?
Suffering for our faith in Jesus is as real today as it was in the first century.
According to the book Jesus Freaks: Stories of those who stood for Jesus, there have been more Christian martyrs in modern times than there were in 100 AD in the Roman Empire. Written in 1998, the book said that close to 150,000 Christians were martyred in 1998, and estimated that 164,000 would be martyred in 1997 . And now, 17 years later, the numbers of those who are dying for their faith have increased steadily. Their stories have the power to feed our faith and fire our zeal if we but listen and learn.
As shown in the life of Jeremiah in the first reading and in the life of Jesus Himself, suffering occurs to faithful people. Their lives assure us that faith is a struggle for truth, for justice, for mercy and for obedience to God.
--This fight was gallantly fought by Ivan Moiseyev, an 18-year-old Russian who in 1972 was beaten and then drowned because he refused to be silent about God.
--In 1999, Roy Pontoh, a 15-year-old Indonesian boy, was hacked to death for refusing to renounce Jesus.
-- During the Korean War, Communist officers killed a pastor and 27 members of his congregation by crushing them under a steamroller because they refused to deny Christ.
And today, almost every week, media reports include the horrors being perpetrated by self-acclaimed religious groups like Boko Haram, Al Shabaab, ISIS and the like. Just when it seems it can get no worse, it does.
Suffering for the faith is as real today as it was 1900 years ago. But our hope in Jesus Christ remains equally true. Martyrs have gone to their deaths with hope in their hearts and songs on their lips. Suffering did not dampen the glorious gift of the resurrection for them. The martyrs knew, as we know, that God is more powerful than all evil and he is the final victor! So, let us remember that following Christ can involve pain and suffering; but let us also know that God is always with us; God is always the victor in Christ Jesus.